Healing and uplifting. Jesus Revolution is a biographical drama that simultaneously depicts the past whilst critiquing the present. Based on a true story about the radical search for truth, comes a motion picture that is simultaneously concerned with critiquing our present world as much as it is depicting historical events. Through exploring the past, the journey’s true value is not merely a better understanding of the past, but the impact on our present world. The real power of this motion picture is the ability for it to use a story from the past as a provocative lens through which to understand the current state of affairs in both popular culture and the Church.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Greg Laurie and a sea of young people descend on sunny Southern California to redefine truth through all means of liberation. Inadvertently, Laurie meets a charismatic street preacher and a pastor who open the doors to a church to a stream of wandering youth. What unfolds is a counterculture movement that becomes the greatest spiritual awakening in American history.

Directors Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle demonstrate that they are just as concerned about the story itself as they are the methodology of crafting a film. Moreover, Jesus Revolution is the first faith-based film (that isn’t a sword and sandal epic) to take itself seriously as a motion picture. Believe me, I was as shocked as critic to find that the cinematography and editing are quite good! Not to mention the excellent lead cast. Cowriting the screenplay with Erwin is the central figure in the film Greg Laurie. Which does give me pause, because individuals writing a biographical drama based on them or major events in which they were a central figure often leads to a lack of authenticity. However, the screenplay is helped by Erwin and Jon Gunn, which is probably why the film feels as honest as it does.

The variety of characters portrayed in the film gives audiences someone with whom to connect. Which isn’t to say that the character with whom you connect is always a positive reaction; perhaps the character with whom you connect is one that is more concerned with ritual, image, and piety than with people and relationships. At the end of the day, this is a film about radical love, and how we need to concern ourselves with not what divides us but with what brings us together.

The biggest draw in the cast is Frasier himself! Kelsey Grammer plays Chuck Smith, the pastor of a dying church, whom is confronted with his own prejudgments about young people and hippie culture. It takes the radical street preacher Lonnie Frisbee and his skeptical-of-Christianity daughter to transform his world view. While Grammer is not the central character in Jesus Revolution, he is the one that you may be coming to see, especially with the highly anticipated revival of his smash hit Frasier. Suffice it to say, Grammer is the best actor in the movie, but he is surrounded by a solid lead cast that shows that faith-based films can deliver quality performances. Through candid arguments and authentic portrayals of raw conflict and reactions, this character-driven motion picture will hold up a mirror to your face and ask you which of these characters you are.

Both the cinematography and editing are on point. There are some absolutely gorgeous shot sequences and even some stylistic editing choices that exponentially increase the quality of this picture compared to most other faith-based films. Where most faith-based films fail is in the ART and SCIENCE of what it takes to craft a compelling picture. More than an objective eye to capture the outside-action plot, the camera is used in the same way an author uses a pen to write a novel. In cinematic terms we call this the camera stylo. There is certainly an auteur quality to this film that is just as concerned with how the story is being presented, and not just what is being presented to audiences.

What I appreciate more than the technical achievement of the film is the fact it doesn’t shy away from how awful christians can be to one another and to outsiders. One thing this faith-based film is not, is an echo chamber for those that already believe. The film is sure to make some people feel uncomfortable; and you know what, it’s not non-believers that this film seeks to make the most uncomfortable (although there is certainly a proselytizing message in the film), the those that are made the most uncomfortable with themselves are judgey christians that care way more about their club than for a hurting world in search for truth and in need of the kind of radical love that Jesus was all about.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida and Indie Film Critics of America. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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“Ben-Hur” (2016) movie review

BenHurJust as epic a story today as it was during Hollywood’s golden age! Paramount Pictures and MGM Studios present the reimagined classic historical drama of Ben-Hur. Appropriately released by two of the most recognized names in the industry harkening back to the early days of cinema, Ben-Hur plays out almost as well as it did decades ago. Sitting in the auditorium last night, I wondered what it was like to see a larger-than-life nail-biting story on the silver screen when the original was released in 1959, just before the final decline of the former powerhouse of motion picture production, the studio system. The grand experience of this film is only overshadowed by the unusual pacing. Typically epic stories require a minimum of two hours, and often come close to 3-hour runtimes in order to do the story justice and tell it visually and emotionally in the most impactful way possible; however, this film is just over two hours. This moderately quick pacing hinders one’s ability to really appreciate the foreground and background stories. The grandeur of the Roman Empire fails to show as prominently as it should have in this film that bares a striking resemblance to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in many respects. There are many sweeping shots of the Circus (chariot racing arena) that are disappointingly mostly CGI’d. Still, there is something remarkable about this story. Whether you are approaching this film from a historic standpoint (historic in an appreciation for classic Hollywood stories), religious perspective (forgiveness and sacrifice), or simply for the bad ass racing of chariots in a grand arena, you will likely find something to enjoy about this movie.

On the backdrop of the final years of the messiah, Ben-Hur is about a Jewish prince named Judah Beh-Hur (Huston) who is falsely accused and betrayed by his adopted Roman brother Messala Severus (Kebbell). Sentenced to a life of perpetual rowing of Roman galleons in battle, Ben-Hur endears harsh treatment and near-death experiences in order to one day seek his vengeance. Meanwhile, Messala becomes a war hero and favorite of the people and the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. When the destruction of his ship opens the door for escape, Ben-Hur finds himself washed upon the shore to be picked up by a wealthy African (Freeman) who races chariots–or pays for young men to race chariots. Striking a deal between them, the wealthy African and Ben-Hur work together to train for Ben-Hur to defeat Massala in the circus in order to reclaim his name and truly hit the Romans where it hurts–losing at their own game.

One of the most unique aspects to this film is the parallel plot between the background and foreground, the plot and subplot. At the end of the day, the message of Ben-Hur is one of forgiveness. The forgiveness between brothers and the forgiveness of Christ. Although this is not a film based upon the story of the messiah (or passion), the character of Jesus is an important element in the journey from vengeance to forgiveness. On three occasions, Ben-Hur encounters Jesus, not knowing who he is. Each of these chance meetings can be read as symbolic of the different acts (or stages) in the film itself. As the story of the passion of the Christ is one that many recognize (even those who are not Christians), it helps to get an idea of what is going on in the background at the same time at the story at the forefront of the film.

Cinematically, the film was a little disappointing. It feels like a lot of potential and opportunity for incredible cinematography and production design was wasted. Although there are many wide or establishing shots, the majority of the film consists of American medium shots. It would have been exciting to see more of the physical world of Jerusalem and the Roman Empire but instead we spend a lot of time indoors or in close proximity to our cast. Likewise, I would have liked to have seen more in the way of physical production design. The world on screen should have been one that I could have almost felt. Furthermore, I find that the pacing of the film was not adequate enough to actually tell the story in the manner in which it should have. It’s mostly like there was a 2.5-3hr movie condensed into a typical 2hr runtime. Sometimes epic films are guilty of way too much exposition, but Ben-Hur definitely could’ve benefited from additional development and exposition. Everything just happens too quickly and with minimal challenge.

Chariot racing. That is synonymous with Ben-Hur. And you will get plenty of horses, chariots, and crashes. Not unlike NASCAR of today, chariot racing was all about the violence and crashes. Thousands of spectators gathered to watch heroes battle it out on the ground of the circus (or race track) to see who will be the “first to finish…last to die.” Many early films were more concerned about the spectacle of cinema more so than the story or message. After all, MGM’s famous logo states Ars Gratia Artis (latin for “art for art’s sake”), meaning the goal of cinema was to contribute to the world of the visual and performing arts. Not necessarily to entertain, although that is certainly part of it, but to create beauty, intrigue, and push the boundaries of the mind and eye. One of the most mesmerizing elements of the original Ben-Hur was the chariot racing. Likewise, the most exciting parts of this new incarnation are the sights, sounds, and spectacle of the chariot races.

Although there are certainly areas of the film that disappointed me, as I have mentioned, I highly recommend for anyone who appreciates historic dramas that wax nostalgic the days of the golden age of Hollywood. And who doesn’t love a great chariot race???